When Hail Rosamer was eight, she announced to her mother that her next pair of shoes would be red. "Perhaps when the king comes home," said her mother: "which I was already old enough to know meant 'no'."
The proverbial king is Good King Julian, monarch of Aravis two centuries before Hail's birth. Although he's invoked daily by the people of Aravis, there's no good reason why he should return. His senile, heirless descendent King Corin has held the throne for many years, and Aravis is capably governed by the prince-bishop and his group of advisors. Aravis - one of the small group of imaginary East European countries which were the setting for Stevermer's earlier A College of Magics (Tor, 1994) - has been at peace for decades, and life is placid.
Hail's ambition is to be a great artist, and this is a world in which many of the great artists have been women. A headstrong girl, she is nevertheless determined to learn all that she can from the acclaimed Madame Carriera - despite her clashes with her fellow apprentices, and her increasing frustration at her own lack of skill. She studies, and falls in love with, the art of Gil Maspero, King Julian's contemporary. By reproducing a siege medal of Maspero's, Hail finds herself accused of counterfeiting: fleeing the city, she recognises the profile from the medal on the face of a living man. Has the King come home?
A College of Magics was acclaimed for its blend of school story, epic fantasy and Edwardian travelogue. The charms of When the King Comes Home are more subtle. Stevermer builds up character and setting for a quarter of the book before the story truly begins. The narrator is an older, wiser Hail, looking back to her youth and the great lesson she learnt: a lesson that may be wasted on the inattentive reader, so delicately is it imparted. The older Hail's voice, wryly affectionate towards the promises and possibilities of her lost youth, is poignantly distinct from the impetuous romantic who rushes into danger for the sake of principles and scholarship.
The conflicts that Hail encounters are rarely black and white. The prince-bishop's counsellors are motivated by both political and personal concerns. The villain of the piece, far from being a black-hearted monster, is a former librarian. Hail perceives the flaws in those she admires without loving them any the less, or recognising the flaws in herself - although, looking back, she wryly admits that her companions were more tolerant than she deserved. Her single-minded obsession with the long-dead Maspero is almost her undoing, but also her salvation.